Monday, 13 September 2010

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

Much has been said on Preston Sturges’ amazing run of films at Paramount during the early 1940s. While I could not finish “Christmas in July” and “The Great Moment” is an awkward thing that was reassembled by the studio, the other six are astonishing satires (I am still in awe that “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” ever passed the censors), although I confess that I never have completely fallen for “Sullivan’s Travels”’.

“The Palm Beach Story” is the fifth in the run, and my second favourite after “The Lady Eve”. It stars Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea as a married couple. The film starts with their wedding over the opening credits and then forwards five years – by now they are flooded by debts. When by chance they clear them, Colbert decides to get a divorce to give her husband a chance in life and to find a millionaire than can take care of her. Of course, he doesn’t really agree with his plan, so she goes to Palm Beach meeting millionaire Rudy Vallee and his sister Mary Astor.

Colbert is a tour de force and it’s a pity that Sturges didn’t use her again. She was so at ease in the sophisticated romantic comedy Paramount made into an art form that she doesn’t get enough credit for it. What I hadn’t fully noticed before was Mary Astor’s exquisite performance as the man eater Princess Centimillia. Obsessed with men, and finding Joel McCrea ideally suitable to be her next husband, she desperately tries to get rid of her current “entertainment” who insists he should stick around. While McCrea and Vallee are good, they really can't compete.

An interesting aspect of the film is that Colbert and McCrea clearly have a healthy sex life. Since they are married and never actually divorce, Sturges got away with far more than he otherwise would. Although apparently he had to tone down Mary Astor’s character lust, reducing the number of her marriages from eight to three, plus two annulments. As if that would make that much difference.

The very end is a bit frustrating and feels a bit of an easy solution out – the opening sequence that helps explain is, probably purposely, not very clear. If had to point out a fault in the film, that would be my choice.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Stamboul Quest (1934)

For the first 20 minutes or so, “Stamboul Train” is quite a promising film. Myrna Loy is the Fräulein Doktor, the most important female spy working for Germany during World War I. And then George Brent appears – in fairness to him, it’s not (entirely) his fault; it’s his character and what he stands for. Falling in love at first sight with Loy, he proceeds to follow her across Europe to Istanbul and interfering with her mission simply because he’s “in love with her”. I really hate this ill-conceived idea that a man is all that is necessary for a woman to fulfil herself, even if that means putting her own country at risk – and recently several films I have seen emphasise this premise (“Lady in the Dark”, “More than a Secretary” also with Brent and “They All Kissed the Bride”). For contrast, having finished a short 19th Century Portuguese novel where the main character fulfils herself through work, refusing to get married, was somewhat refreshing.

But back to the film and what it is its main problem: the script. This looks the most routine of routine jobs – I’d go as far as wonder if this wasn’t conceived as a B picture and got changed as it developed. Or maybe it didn't change at all - this was release only a couple of months after "The Thin Man" and "Manhattan Melodrama". It’s not just Brent’s character that is a cardboard cutout, there’s also a badly explained ending, tying in with the first scene (the film is a shown to us in flashback, without no apparent reason). So what started so well, goes on, and on, constantly finding a new low until it hits rock bottom at the very end.

The film has an interesting connection with Mata Hari – and more the Garbo film than the actual story. It winks at the audience referring to the plot of the early film. The two films (both produced by MGM) would overlap in the “real” timescale. This, and Loy’s performance before Brent follows her to Istanbul, are two of the main interest points of the film. A third aspect of interest is the openness about Loy’s sexual behaviour which is surprisingly not toned down: if IMDb is correct the film was released two weeks after the enforcement of the Hays Code.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Metropolis (1927)

Where should I start on this one? Perhaps with my personal history with the film – I saw it around 2002 or 2003 in Bristol, at the Arnolfini. If you ever sat there before refurbishment (never went there afterwards) you’d probably remember how uncomfortable the seats were. Add to the mix that I wasn’t very versed in silent cinema and have an intense dislike of parables. So, despite its reputation, “Metropolis” then had little chances of engaging me. I think I saw the 2001 restoration, with photos and intertitles explaining the missing footage. This was the best approximation to Lang’s cut available then. Nevertheless, I was very excited when the news of the original cut being found reached me. Proof that miracles do happen.

So I went to UK premiere at the BFI – which is far less glamorous than it sounds, as it was just an ordinary screening at the NFT1. And if at first the cuts were minimal (they are easy to spot), suddenly whole sequences appeared out of nowhere, developing characters further and giving the film a rhythm that it I thought it lacked before. While the storyline is the same as the version I saw, the fact that I had images rather than text meant that the action made more sense. It also meant that the religiousness of it all become more diluted, which in turn highlighted the social aspect of it. The missing sequences also increase the story’s tension as the Thin Man, previously no more than a bit player, is now a menacing character pursuing Joh and Josaphat (another character who now appears much more developed). Josaphat also became an intriguing character, and some people might pick up on this as the cut becomes better known and studied, in that he seems to be infatuated by the hero (who seems to be oblivious). It still isn’t a complete print. There was too much damage in one or two sections which could not be restored, but I can live with it – I better do, miracles do not tend to strike the same place twice.

As for the film itself, my highlight is Brigitte Helm in her incarnation as the robot. Her body language, the way she moves, the way she almost winks at Fredersen, so different from her other character as the heroine. Plus her dancing routine as the the new Babylon is so weird and funny (and the faces of the men watching it) that is priceless.

So now I like “Metropolis”. I still cringe at moments – the banality of the philosophy in it and some of the silent film style of overacting – but I don’t think it matters. Even if I hated it, a near complete print of a film that is loved by millions and has influenced countless artists since, has been recovered to our common heritage. This is one the happiest endings in cinema history.